What is a Website?

The question comes to mind of real-world places, like the Grand Canyon, libraries, street corners you know, museums. And institutions, great institutions (in the abstract, anyway) like the U.S. Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court and grand institutions of learning like M.I.T. and Harvard University.

We have a certain outlook for real-world places that root abstract concepts. But on the web we still refer to the greats as mere websites.

Wikipedia is a website, yes. But is it not one of several behemoths, great beasts of the modern netscape (err, not the company obviously, though they did loom in their day). Great institutions with all signs of the lasting legacy of the Harvards and M.I.T.s and so on.

There is a certain leveling and democracy in Alice’s Blog being on the same footing with a Wikipedia. But at the same time, it seems we should be looking for new names for great Internet-based institutions. That we should be able to call Wikipedia a website, but also call it something which evokes its importance and lasting nature.

We have another term, web application. It fits certain sites. But when I think of an application, I think of a shell that provides functionality. I don’t associate the data of the application with being what it provides. If Wikipedia is an application that provides encyclopedic articles, well, where’s the competing application that relies on the same data set?

And there can be, don’t get me wrong. You can download Wikipedia’s database and write an application (web-based or platform-based) and pull those articles up (you can also download MediaWiki, the software powering Wikipedia). Others have come up with some innovative ways to, e.g., pull articles over DNS. The main application-like part of Wikipedia is its editing functionality.

So maybe Wikipedia is both a website and a web application. At least in part. But that still doesn’t account for the community behind it. Or that its most essential nature is as a repository of articles.

You could try portal or property or destination after web. Maybe some other term. But I think an important step, one that will eventually happen, is to drop the web. That at some point the articles of Wikipedia will be the headliner, and whatever built-in editing and display they want on the web will be the website. There may be platform-based alternatives (or alternative web applications) to provide the editing and display.

This is already partially true for how Wikipedia and the other Wikimedia Foundation (the organization behind Wikipedia) sites handle things like images. Image files and other media that are embedded in Wikipedia actually live on the Wikimedia site and may be reused across language versions and on other Wikimedia Foundation sites.

But that trend can be extended to other uses, and once enough uses for a system exist, the web frontend is truly a frontend rather than the raison d’ĂȘtre for the backend. It reminds me of the story behind the GNOME Sudoku application; apparently the author wrote a solver for Sudoku puzzles, and it grew an interface up around it. Sometimes that process works in the other direction.